Public history project aims to foster discussion about race and racism

Civil rights scholar W.E.B. Du Bois’ groundbreaking sociological study, “The Philadelphia Negro,” was commissioned by Penn. More than a century after the book was published, a professor and several students at the University are working to ensure the seminal social science work has a lasting impact.

“The Ward: Race and Class in Du Bois’ Seventh Ward,” is a research, teaching, and public history project dedicated to sharing the lessons from Du Bois’ 1899 book about racism and the role of research in affecting social change.

"We are trying to facilitate a conversation about race and racism today,” says Amy Hillier, an assistant professor in PennDesign’s Department of City and Regional Planning, who started the project in 2004 and presided over its rebranding last year. “We think ‘The Philadelphia Negro’ is a great platform for doing that. There are a lot of other benefits to studying this book. There are a lot of lessons around social sciences, really strong humanities themes. But ultimately we want to continue the conversation that Du Bois started.”

A redesigned website includes a new oral history project chronicling the lives of older African Americans who worship at churches in or near the Seventh Ward. A section of Philadelphia that once was the center of life for blacks has become a gentrified and predominantly white neighborhood with expensive homes and upscale boutiques and restaurants.

“What Du Bois did in writing the book is conduct 200-plus interviews with residents throughout the Seventh Ward,” says Nicole Young, a Penn master’s student in education policy and the oral history project manager. “Now the Seventh Ward looks very, very different, but a lot of the same churches are still there. What we’ve been doing is talking to members of congregations that were highlighted in ‘The Philadelphia Negro.’ A lot of them see the role of the church as really significant to their individual growth. They saw it as the center of black life and black community growing up, but that has changed dramatically.”

Hillier, who holds a secondary appointment in Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice, became fascinated by the possibility of using new mapping technologies to look at the “making and remaking” of “The Philadelphia Negro,” a book she admired.

“It was intended [by Penn] to identify the problems that kept blacks in the Seventh Ward from succeeding on the same terms as U.S. born whites and immigrants,” she says. “Du Bois interpreted this as being rather patronizing. He said, ‘They want to know about the Negro problem.’ To put it simply, one of the remarkable things about his work was that he reframed the Negro problem as the problems that were facing blacks. He talked a lot about the physical environment in which blacks were living—housing—but also the social and economical environments. It really was one of the pioneering studies to identify systematic racial discrimination as a barrier to advancement of African Americans.”

Working with an undergraduate student, Hillier used GIS and Census data to recreate one block of the Seventh Ward. From there the project took many twists and turns until new funding allowed it to expand last year. It now includes a five-day curriculum for high school students, which Amy Cohen, a Penn alumna and chair of the social studies department at Julia R. Masterman School in the Spring Garden neighborhood, uses in her African-American history class.

“It’s primary-sourced, so I think it gives a lot more texture than just presenting the factual information about blacks in the late 19th century,” Cohen says. “With the resources on The Ward—the website, the board game, the films—it makes it that much more vibrant and engaging to the students.”

Over the years, Hillier estimates more than 50 undergraduate and graduate students—mostly from Penn, but some from other schools—have worked on the project. It’s an ensemble effort that one imagines Du Bois himself would be proud of.

“Du Bois was a remarkable civil rights scholar and activist who everyone knows too little about,” Hillier says.

Not anymore.

Du Bois